THE FOLKS WHO gave us Mitt Romney the Businessman, Mitt Romney the Reformer, and Mitt Romney the Hunk are now giving us another candidate for governor: Mitt Romney the Super-Patriot. This new Romney took the stage at a Seaport Hotel fundraiser alongside President George W. Bush shortly after 12:30 p.m. last Friday in a blatant attempt to exploit the war on terrorism for electoral advantage. Standing in front of eight flags (four US flags alternating with four flags of the Commonwealth), Romney invoked words that have become synonymous with America’s war on terror: "Let’s roll."
"Let’s roll," of course, are the last known words of United Flight 93 passenger Todd Beamer, uttered before he joined other passengers and flight attendants in storming the cockpit of the hijacked airplane on September 11 in a move credited with saving the United States Capitol. Let’s Roll is the title of Lisa Beamer’s memoir about her husband. "Let’s Roll" is the title of a Neil Young song about the September 11 attacks. Indeed, 13 months after United Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania, "Let’s roll" represents a nonpartisan, all-American call to kick butt.
In front of a moneyed GOP crowd, however, the former president of the Salt Lake City Olympic Committee injected the phrase into a comment about ... state tax policy. During his brief introduction of Bush, Romney recalled the president’s visit with Olympic athletes and quoted Bush talking to the athletes: "He gave them a battle cry they would not forget.... He said, ‘Let’s roll.’" The candidate allowed the cheers and the applause in the room to cascade over him. Then, he appropriated the phrase and made it the exclusive property of the GOP. "We have to make sure we have that battle cry today as well because there are some people who would get the bus going back to Taxachusetts, and this man," Romney said, referring to Bush, "knows how to stop that kind of problem."
It was one thing for Bush to use Beamer’s last words to inspire the American public in a difficult battle against terrorism — as he first did on November 9, 2001, in a speech to police officers and firefighters, and then again during his State of the Union address last January. But using this "battle cry" as a justification for lower taxes was another thing altogether. What was Romney thinking? I don’t know what Todd Beamer’s politics were. But I doubt that income-tax rates were on his mind when he uttered those words on board United Flight 93.
AT THE FUNDRAISER, Bush gave a somewhat wide-ranging address, touching on topics from the GOP gubernatorial candidate’s attributes ("Romney showed up [at the Olympics] and brought some managerial skills and some vision") and the economy ("In that tax-relief plan, we cut rates, which is good for job creation") to the war against Al Qaeda ("We’re hunting them down) and, of course, Iraq ("For the sake of freedom, for the sake of peace ... if Saddam Hussein continues to lie and deceive, the United States will lead a coalition to disarm this man before he harms America").
The speech ended with the rousing strains of "Stars and Stripes Forever." I spotted Massachusetts Senate minority leader Brian Lees of Springfield praising Romney in the afterglow of the president’s speech in comments to television reporter Ray Hershel of Springfield’s WGGB News40. "This is not just a national issue," Lees said. "This is an issue that affects each and every American, and that’s what the president made very clear today.... We have to get involved.... While [Bush] never mentioned Shannon O’Brien’s name per se, he’s not that kind of politician. He’s not a finger-pointer." Lees left it to the listener to figure out what, exactly, O’Brien has to do with September 11 or the possibility of war with Iraq.
Even prior to Romney’s October 4 speech, his spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom had been whispering in reporters’ ears, contrasting the president’s position on Saddam Hussein with that of former vice-president Al Gore. The point, of course, was to capitalize on the fact that Gore would be attending a Worcester fundraiser for O’Brien the same day Bush was stumping for Romney. "Most people in Massachusetts," Fehrnstrom told reporters before Bush’s speech, "support the president’s war on terror.... Al Gore has been a critic to the president’s policies in regard to the war on terrorism, specifically on the plans with regard to Iraq. Mitt’s position is that he supports the president." The implication is that Romney agrees with Bush and is therefore patriotic. And that O’Brien agrees with Gore, who doesn’t support the president, which throws her patriotism into question.
However clumsily, Lees and Fehrnstrom were trying to link O’Brien with Gore’s position on Iraq. Fehrnstrom’s comments — in which he talked about "a few dissident" voices, including "maybe even Shannon O’Brien," who oppose Bush’s plans for Iraq — were printed in Saturday’s Boston Globe. The paper quotes O’Brien replying, "Let’s take the politics out of a very serious national issue."
Of course, the extent to which the debate over war with Iraq should be politicized has been a point of contention for both Democrats and Republicans in recent weeks. Last month, Majority Leader Tom Daschle took to the floor of the Senate and delivered an angry address directed at President Bush: "We ought not politicize the rhetoric about war and life and death."
Whether you agree with Daschle on Iraq (at first critical of the president’s plans, he now seems close to signing on to a bipartisan resolution endorsing military action), former vice-president Al Gore (he thinks fighting Iraq will impede the war against Al Qaeda), or Bush (he insists that Saddam Hussein must be removed), all three men have something in common: they are national political figures and important voices in the Iraq debate. The same cannot be said of the Massachusetts governor, whoever may hold that post. The Commonwealth’s chief executive will not give the order to send troops into battle or to stay home. Nor will the governor approve or deny air strikes. Whether the US engages Iraq in armed combat is as much a priority of the governor’s office as whether America launches a new rocket to Mars. That’s what makes the not-so-subtle effort by Romney’s campaign to hitch itself to the president’s war on terror in general, and its attempts to paint O’Brien as unpatriotic in particular, so repulsive.
Someone should remind Romney that it’s 2002, not 1994. He’s running for governor, not senator. If Romney had chosen to challenge John Kerry for a Senate seat, this strategy would be fine: in those circumstances, it would be perfectly legitimate for Romney to question Kerry’s views on war and peace. (It would also be foolhardy, given Kerry’s service in Vietnam and his Silver Star versus Romney’s high draft number and college-student exemption.) But the Senate stands to vote on a resolution having to deal with war in Iraq — something to which a governor’s office has no relation. That’s why we get well-thought-out positions on war with Iraq from Senate candidates such as Republican John Sununu and Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, who are duking it out in New Hampshire, and not from candidates for governor.